In a remarkably vast and varied career, Neil Young has consistently returned to perform and record albums with his ragtag, primitivist rock ‘n’ roll band Crazy Horse. The last time the full group assembled to back Young on an album of original material — the bloated and aimless “Broken Arrow” — was in 1996, and the reunited band is set to release double album “Psychedelic Pill” on Oct. 30. They previewed the new album extensively Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.
After the house lights dimmed at the Bowl, a farcical scene played out onstage: As the final setpieces were lowered into position, a group of sound technicians — dressed in white lab coats — frantically scrambled to remove road cases from a set of comically oversized guitar amps while the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” played in the background. As the song concluded, Young and his bandmates walked onstage — dressed uniformly in t-shirts and jeans — and proceeded to stand, solemnly, as “The Star Spangled Banner” played through the PA system. It was an absurd, lengthy and unexplained introduction to a performance that seemed to revel in the mystification of its audience while providing too little in the way of answers or empathy.
Opening with a lengthy rendition of “Love and Only Love,” the group embarked on the first of many jams. Each briefly sung verse and chorus was accompanied by a winding, repetitive electric guitar solo by Young, whose playing was guttural and searing if myopic in its phrasing and melodic choices. The real issue with Young and Crazy Horse as “jam band” is that only one of the musicians onstage is allowed to improvise. Young shreds, and the other guys just kind of plod along, which is compelling for a little while but grows tiresome over long stretches.
A pristine reading of “Powderfinger” contained some truly exquisite guitar and vocal harmonies that shed light upon the group’s true strengths as a tight, melodic unit. Crazy Horse began its musical career in 1963 as an all-vocal doo-wop ensemble (Danny and the Memories), and the members’ underrated vocal abilities are at the core of the band’s fertile collaboration with Young.
Overall, the setlist drew heavily from “Psychedelic Pill,” which seems to explore the existential rigors of aging with an overtly direct lyrical sensibility. Nostalgic ruminations like the janky, cringe-inducing rocker “Born in Ontario” and the endless, simile-filled “Walk Like a Giant” lent a directionless feeling to a show that relied enormously upon the audience’s perceptions and personal interpretations. When Young solos for three quarters of a song, that song’s lyrics become exponentially more important because they provide tangible, concrete grounding to his mercurial musical improvisations. If said lyrics fail to resonate, then the entire exercise feels futile. With the “Psychedelic Pill” material, this sort of hollowness appeared time and time again.
Midway through the evening, Young performed two solo acoustic tracks: his classic anti-heroin ode “Needle and the Damage Done” and “Twisted Road,” a nostalgic new tune that makes lyrical references to Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams and the Grateful Dead. Later in the set, the group regained some of its early momentum with fiery renditions of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Fuckin’ Up,” the latter of which was a clear highlight. Another forgettable new track, “Party Girl,” followed but thankfully gave way to a titanic reading of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” that found Young and his cohorts huddled at center stage, reveling in the song’s monolithic riffs and slabs of distortion.
The evening was capped with a one-song encore comprised of the stomping Buffalo Springfield track “Mr. Soul,” which found Young in fine voice, pushing his warbling tenor with a reckless, punk-inspired sensibility. In comparison to Young performances of old, perhaps this concert did cater more directly to his audience’s desire for chestnuts and classic tunes, but the overemphasis on his weaker new material overshadowed what could have been an illuminating exploration of a rich body of work.